The German-born Jewish scholar Leopold Zunz (1794-1886) was the founder of modern historical and philological study of Judaism.
Leopold Zunz was born at Lippe, Detmold, on Aug. 10, 1794. Educated in Wolfenbüttel at the Samson Free School, he went on to study classics and history at Berlin University. Initially (1824-1831) he earned his livelihood as the editor of a newspaper (Hande-Spenersche Zeitung). Then he became teacher and school principal at the Jewish Teachers Seminary, Berlin (1840-1850). In later years he devoted most of his time to historical research and scientific writings.
Zunz was a direct product of the "Century of Lights," the 18th century, and of the civil and intellectual enlightenment and enfranchisement which Moses Mendelssohn and others made possible. Indeed, Zunz did for the history and the literature of Judaism what Mendelssohn had done for Jewish theology and philosophy. Both applied a cultured and liberally educated mind to the ancient heritage of Judaism and rabbinic literature and theology. Zunz and Mendelssohn were only two of a group of writers and thinkers in the 19th and 18th centuries who fought for a greater liberalism within Judaism and between Judaism and Christianity. It was all part of the Enlightenment headed by the French encyclopédistes and fomented by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (his Nathan der Weise was published in 1779), the Prussian C. W. von Duhm, and others in France, England, and Austria.
Before Zunz's time, Jewish writings and literary works had never been subjected to "modern" methods of historical and literary criticism and research. For this reason, it had been thought that the main body of Jewish thought was of a static character with little or no relation to the changing social and cultural circumstances of each new era. Jewish orthodox traditionalism helped to confirm this view. Zunz's studies changed this. He proceeded on the principle that what was essential in Judaism must and does remain inviolate but that continual reform and renewal must take place. Zunz achieved his purpose through a series of published studies. In 1832 he published Die Gottesdienstlichen Vorträge der Juden. This was a study of the inner development of Hebrew literature against the background of concrete historical events. His method was new; the wealth of historical and philological details brought to bear on Hebrew literature was new. He followed this with his German translation of the Hebrew Bible (1837).
In 1845 Zunz published Zur Geschichte und Literatur. In this he not only located medieval Jewish literary works within the general context of European literature; he successfully demonstrated the inner relationships and mutual influences exercised between the various phases of Jewish religious speculation and thought throughout the different literary types: Talmud, synagogal poetry, Cabala, and so on. Zunz took up synagogal poetry in three subsequent works analyzing the poems as a literary genre and relating them to other Hebrew forms, to European forms, and to historical events. Zunz's other works were published in three volumes as Gesammelte Schriften (1875-1876). He died in Berlin on March 18, 1886.
Further Reading on Leopold Zunz
Some information on Zunz appears in Heinrich H. Graetz, History of the Jews (6 vols., 1891-1898), and Solomon Schecter, Studies in Judaism, Series III (1924).